The Arts in Early Learning: From the Classroom to the State of the Union

When President Obama announced his universal pre-K initiative during the State of the Union Address this past Feb. 12th, a preschool educator was listening from a very coveted vantage point: a couple of seats away from First Lady Michelle Obama in the House of Representatives chamber. Susan Bumgarner teaches four-year-olds at Wilson Arts Integration Elementary School in Oklahoma City. The school participates in the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program.

Since 1995, Susan and the other teachers at Wilson have attended professional learning programs sponsored in partnership with the Black Liberated Arts Center, Inc. The Kennedy Center program is a network of nearly 100 arts organizations and their neighboring school districts in more than 40 states that “partner” in offering professional development for teachers and teaching artists. The Kennedy Center program also offers a roster of trained teaching artists to support the Partners in Education sites.

Also offered by the Kennedy Center are national learning institutes on arts integration, online and traditional curricular and instructional resources and valuable lesson plans. Support for its programs is provided in part by the Office of Innovation and Improvement through the Arts in Education National Program grant.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, and guests

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden greet State of the Union box guest Susan Bumgarner, and her guest Pamela Hibbs, in the Blue Room of the White House, Feb. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Susan’s presence at the State of the Union prompted me to ask “what are she and the other teachers at Wilson Arts Integration Elementary doing to warrant a seat with the first lady?” Doing an interview for the OII blog seemed the best way to find out. And because Susan, as you’ll learn in the interview, attributes much of her and the school’s success to their work with both the Black Liberated Arts Center and the Kennedy Center, I asked Amy Duma, the Kennedy Center’s director of teacher and school programs, to join the interview.

Here’s how they see arts integration, how it’s evolved at Wilson Arts Integration Elementary, and some valuable information about resources from the Kennedy Center available to schools, teachers, teaching artists, and others who are committed to arts integration.

Doug: How did the arts integration school at Wilson happen? And what role did the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, which I know has been a part of the efforts at the school for a long time, play in the development of the curriculum and the instructional programs at Wilson?

Susan: When I first came to Wilson in 1992, our principal was also new and Wilson was a very low-performing school. Lots of people in the neighborhood were poor and sent their kids here. And the people who had money in the neighborhood, of which there were a lot, sent their kids to private school.

The principal really wanted to turn the school around, and she thought the arts might be the way. Meanwhile, Anita Arnold at the Black Liberated Arts Center, Inc. (BLAC Inc.) in Oklahoma City had established a partnership with Oklahoma City Schools through the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, and she invited Wilson to join the partnership as an arts integration pilot school.

Amy: Yes, that’s right; in 1994 BLAC, Inc. applied for the Partners in Education program and was accepted. They came to the 1995 Institute. Due to changes in school personnel, the partnership moved from Oklahoma City Schools to the Mid-Del Schools, but Wilson remained as part of the partnership.

Doug: And, Susan, in those early years, what role did the relationship with BLAC Inc. and the Partners in Education program play when you were getting started as a pilot arts-integration school?

Susan: First, some of our staff went to visit some Kennedy Center affiliated schools, and that gave us an idea. We were trying to start on our own. But after the visits, we started having Kennedy Center teaching artists right away. And, as time went by I think Anita and our principal, Beverly Story, were really creative in finding sources of funding so that we could have more professional development. We originally just had professional development that consisted of workshops, and then some years later we added coaching to it.

Doug: Amy, what specifically does the Partners program do to assist schools like Wilson with their professional development needs?

Kennedy Center Teaching Artist Kimberli Boyd leads teachers in a creative movement workshop. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Kennedy Center Teaching Artist Kimberli Boyd leads teachers in a creative movement workshop. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Amy: The purpose of Partners in Education is to help communities across the country offer professional development in the arts and arts integration for teachers. And this is based on the work that the Kennedy Center has been doing locally (in the D.C. metro area) for more than 30 years.

The Partners in Education program was started in 1991, and the way that it works is that a community develops a partnership between the local school district and an arts organization. And that partnership works to develop and offer professional development in the arts for teachers. When the program began, this idea that arts organizations and school districts would partner together and offer professional development for teachers was fairly new, because a lot of effort by performing arts organizations up to that point was going toward programs for students.

It has spread across the country; there are now 97 partnership teams in 42 states and D.C. And they’re all offering professional development work for teachers. We add new communities every other year through an application process. More information about how to apply is at the Partners in Education website.

What the Kennedy Center recognizes is if you can impact a teacher and the way that she or he is teaching, then that teacher is going to not only impact the 30 students that they’re teaching in the classroom at that time, but over the course of a career, which could be 30 or more years, that teacher could impact more than 900 students.

And so that multiplier effect of being able to reach more students by empowering teachers is really what has driven us to offer professional development for teachers.

Doug: Susan, you mentioned the workshops, how did the teachers at Wilson, you included, benefit from those workshops with the teaching artists from the Kennedy Center’s Partners program?

Susan: Well, it gave us a new model — not just new ideas — for things to do, because it is always easier to find ways to do that. But some of us kind of knew what we were doing. And what we really did in the beginning was arts enhancement (using the arts to teach other subject areas) more than arts integration (objectives in both the arts and other subject areas). We were trying for arts integration, but it was hard for us to get a handle on. We made some attempts; for example, we had a place on our lesson plans to indicate an arts-integration lesson.

When we were observed for evaluation, while the principal couldn’t require us to do an arts-integration lesson of any particular kind, she did encourage us to do that when she was observing us. Of course most people were completely willing to do that because it’s a better way of teaching.

Doug: Did you come to Wilson as an art specialist or a preschool generalist? What was your background in 1995 when you arrived there?

Susan: My background was early childhood education and child development. I had worked with mostly infants and toddlers prior to coming to Wilson. And getting used to the four-year-olds was a major shift for me.

And so, no, I didn’t have any arts background; I have personal interest in the arts, but I don’t have a personal skill in any arts area.

Doug: So what role did those workshops, especially early on, play in helping you to feel like you could make the arts a meaningful part of the preschool effort at Wilson?

Susan: The first thing that it did was show me how my relationship to the arts was related to what I was doing at school. So in a way it started out being more personal because I would go, “I’m interested,” or, “I went to this great concert and I bought a CD because the music was so wonderful. How can I use that in the classroom in our arts integration? Is there a way to bring music in more than I am doing?”

Also, I have to say that diversity has always been at the forefront in my teachings, and arts integration is such a great way to do that as well. But everything I know about arts integration I’ve learned from Kennedy Center teaching artists. I tried to seek out other information about arts education, and it hasn’t been of the same quality and depth and rigor. And so my evolution as a teacher is completely influenced by what I’ve learned from Kennedy Center teaching artists.

Doug: Susan, following the workshops, did you and other Wilson teachers work together, independently, or some of both to develop lesson units and activities?

Susan Bumgarner consults with teaching artist Marcia Daft (left) on her Moving Through Math integration lessons. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bumgarner)

Susan Bumgarner consults with teaching artist Marcia Daft (left) on her Moving Through Math integration lessons. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bumgarner)

Susan: In the beginning we would just take back lesson units from the workshops that we could use in the classroom. And most of us would try right away to do that. Sometimes, while the Kennedy Center teaching artist was still here we would go back to the classroom the next morning and try things out. As time went by, teachers started partnering up and working on things together, which has been more beneficial than trying to do it all by yourself.

For a few years now, we have included a coaching model as part of that. For example, Karen Erickson might come three times in the year and she might do a workshop with everybody or a demonstration class with everybody, or the teachers of a certain age range. And then Karen works with individual teachers and coaches them over the time that she’s here, like over three days. She communicates with them in between her visits.

Amy: Karen Erickson is a Kennedy Center teaching artist from Chicago. She is one of 50 teaching artists from across the country — from as far away as Hawaii — who work with the Kennedy Center and travel to Partners in Education sites to lead professional development for teachers.

Doug: So it evolves from an encounter that’s the catalyst that gets you started, and you get a lesson unit that you implement to somebody coming in when you’re further along in the process of teaching with the arts and giving you feedback on how to improve things, right?

Susan: Exactly. And the Kennedy Center teaching artists are so knowledgeable, both in their art form and in the subject content that they teach with it, like math for example. They’re so knowledgeable in how to integrate the arts that they can see a hundred things that we could do better that we just don’t have the ability to see on our own.

Doug: At this year’s Partners in Education national conference, it was wonderfully coincidental that you, Susan, were asked to come to D.C. to be the guest of the first lady and you were already scheduled to attend the conference. In fact, you were asked to talk about some things that you’ve learned over the years as a veteran school in the Partners network. What were some of the things you shared with the audience at the conference — the lessons you’ve learned, the insights you have from your years working with the Partners in Education and arts integration?

Susan: We’ve found that it’s important for us, in our ever-evolving process of being an arts integration school, to build on our prior knowledge, in the same way that children learn.

And so we have found that having Kennedy Center teaching artists return for repeat visits really helps us to build on what we’ve learned and then to apply it at a deeper level — more of a continuum in our experience. And that helps to keep our staff always learning and staying more involved with it and more invested in it. And that’s good for our students.

We’re also in the process now of planning — and this is something that we also talked about in that conference session — a better way for new teacher induction. We didn’t have new teachers for a long time at school, so that didn’t matter so much in the past, but now all of the sudden we have a lot and we have questions like, “What should we do to get them onboard with arts integration, and what should we do to keep them involved?” Also, “Should our hiring process even be a little bit different in the interview questions?” It’s overwhelming to come into this school and be told, “You’re expected to teach art and the district curriculum together.”

Doug: You have arts specialists at Wilson. How does collaboration between them and classroom teachers happen?

Susan: The fact that we have arts specialists full-time on staff is an incredible resource. One of the ways that we keep the arts integration program going is because the arts specialists help keep us focused on real arts integration. They can help the new teachers as well.

We have a shifting paradigm of what an elementary school looks like, and what are the roles of teachers. In our school, it’s just really beginning to show a change of more collaboration and less doing things on your own.

This year we started a new program where each arts specialist is paired with a classroom teacher and we have one shared planning time a week and one shared teaching time a week. Most people in the school have adopted a co-teaching approach. The drama teacher and I took it further — I really wanted coaching from him, so we went more for a coaching approach with our collaboration.

Now we see how beneficial that is, so next year we want to do that and we also want to pair up some experienced classroom teachers with new classroom teachers. And the newer teachers are up for it and so are classroom teachers. So I just see things getting much richer.


Left to right: Students sketch scenes for Three Billy Goats Gruff and become the trolls under bridge when they act out the story. Far right: A student storyboards another tale about metamorphosis in an arts-science lesson. (Photos courtesy of Susan Bumgarner)

Doug: Amy, what are your thoughts on arts specialist teachers collaborating with general classroom or other-subject teachers?

Amy: In another Kennedy Center program, called Changing Education Through the Arts, that’s one of the things that has come out in the research and evaluation studies: that there is a stronger collaboration between arts specialists and classroom teachers because of arts integration happening throughout the school. And typically it might be just something as simple as the arts specialists attending professional development with the classroom teachers, and then when they go back to the classroom, the arts specialists are there to help support the classroom teachers, to answer questions, plan together.

The arts specialists become a valued resource in the school because they have the expertise in the art form. And so when the teacher is integrating that art form with their curriculum, they can ask questions and ask for additional resources from the arts specialists. And so arts specialists end up supporting the arts integration work that way.

Doug: Yes, and the arts specialist, rather than being that mysterious person who occupies that art or music room down the hallway, becomes a really integral resource to the classroom teachers, and becomes a leader among the teachers in a school.

Amy: That’s exactly it. And there’s this wonderful moment, usually in one of the professional development sessions, where the classroom teachers turn to their music teacher or their visual art teacher and they suddenly realize, “Oh my gosh, you know all about this art form, and we need your help in order to be able to integrate it with our curriculum.”

Doug: Susan, you were there at the State of the Union because President Obama announced an initiative for universal preschool. In those preschool years, why is learning in and through the arts important to early childhood development?

Susan: Preschoolers are really concrete in the way they learn. And they also learn best through play. Now if you look at any random preschool class anywhere, if it’s a good class at all, you’re going to see dancing; you’re going to see singing; you’re going to see pretending, which is a form of acting. You’re going to see painting and drawing. So that’s traditional in early education. But when you use arts integration, things go deeper; the connections really deepen the understanding in the arts and in the traditional content areas.


But really what we’ve been talking about a lot is play, and how the arts are really what play looks like in a structured form. When the big kids go to drama, when they go to music, they feel like they’re playing. It’s structured play, and it’s teacher-initiated play, but it is play. And we know that is the way preschoolers learn. The arts provide the perfect vehicle for children to do that. They need child-directed play and teacher-directed play; it’s really critical for them to have both.

When people are trying to structure these programs, especially if they’re all day, they need to understand the relationship between the arts and the things that they’re expecting the children to learn and how they can be done together.

Doug: Let’s switch to the question of students with disabilities in the preschool programs. Are the arts in a preschool environment, in particular in a preschool classroom, an effective way to integrate students with disabilities?

Susan: To me, it’s the best way I know. I think it’s very egalitarian because in the arts you’re using different ways of learning; it addresses different modalities of learning and different ways of expressing yourself.

So they have more avenues of both learning and showing what they know. In our school we have children with a variety of disabilities. And children with different abilities are drawn to different arts. Not all of them are drawn to the same arts as a way to communicate. For example, drama is not maybe high on the list for an autistic person. Maybe some other art forms are.

But they all learn, and in my experience they learn more easily through the arts and they’re just so totally a part of the class. A good way to look at it is that arts integration is differentiated learning, and we have to have differentiated learning for those children with special needs.

And in early childhood the children’s needs levels vary so widely. I have children who don’t even know what a book is in my class, and I have children who can read it like an adult. It runs the gambit, so I still have to differentiate learning for all of them. And arts integration is the perfect way to do that — because it’s almost automatic differentiation.

Doug: Amy, do any of the teaching artists with the Partners Program have specialties in the area of inclusion?

Amy: Yes, a few do have specialties in that area, but actually, we’re taking a broader approach, too. We want all of our Kennedy Center teaching artists to participate in professional development to be able to work effectively with students with special needs. And with VSA, a longtime educational affiliate of the Kennedy Center and now an even stronger presence within the Center’s education program, we’re looking very closely at what more we can do to ensure that all of our teaching artists will be able to work effectively with students with special needs.

All of our teaching artists come together for professional development once a year in September, and last year we had a presenter lead a session that focused specifically on working with students with autism. He explained very clearly what autism is and then what the challenges are for students with autism and how that translates into the school environment. And then we went to the next step of looking specifically at how those challenges would relate to students working in the arts or in arts integration.

Our teaching artists incorporate that into all of their professional development for teachers, and then when they return in September, we will pick up that topic again and continue to learn more about how our teaching artists can work effectively with students with special needs.

Doug: Susan, Oklahoma is one of the 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards. In your view and from your experience at Wilson, do the arts naturally fit into the Common Core? And how could the arts be a part of the Common Core rolling out across the country?

Susan: Arts Integration fits so well with the Common Core as I understand it. In the arts we learn to describe and analyze and interpret, we learn to think and communicate. We don’t just spit out answers; we have to learn to reason. Those are the things that our children are learning when we do arts integration. They learn to find relationships and see patterns in things. As I understand it, that’s what the Common Core is expecting of students.

Doug: Amy, you mentioned CETA, when did that program begin? And how is it different from the Partners in Education program?

Teachers experience creative movement at a Kennedy Center professional development workshop. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Teachers experience creative movement at a Kennedy Center professional development workshop. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Amy: Changing Education Through the Arts, or CETA for short, which began in 1999, is a partnership between the Kennedy Center and 16 schools in the D.C. metro area — Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.— that are interested in adopting a focus on arts integration. The Kennedy Center offers professional development to help teachers integrate the arts with other curriculum areas. Teachers attend workshops, multi-session courses, demonstration teaching in classrooms, and work with a coach to get feedback on their implementation of arts integration. The schools, in turn, develop a strategic plan that is designed to help them spread arts integration throughout their schools.

The CETA program is similar to a laboratory program — we learn from working in the field with our local schools and then we share what we’ve learned with the Kennedy Center’s national networks, such as the Partners in Education program.

Doug: The Kennedy Center, through its CETA program, has developed a definition of arts integration. What is it?

Amy: We noticed a number of years ago that people were talking about arts integration, arts infusion, a lot of different terms. And there’s no nationally recognized definition for arts integration. We felt in our program that we needed to have a shared definition so that when we said “arts integration” we were all talking about the same thing.

We did research on what was happening across the country — about arts integration programs and how programs and schools were defining arts integration.

We looked at our own program and our own practice. And we came up with a two-sentence definition for arts integration:

Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and
demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a
creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and
meets evolving objectives in both.

And after we developed the definition, then we created sessions that would help people understand the definition better, unpack it and really talk about what each of these terms mean.

And so we have sessions that are available to travel across the country. There’s a two- three-hour session for teachers and administrators and there’s an eight-hour session specifically for teaching artists.

Doug: What about participating online?

Amy: We also have ArtsEdge as a part of the Kennedy Center, which has some specific online resources that allow people to explore that arts integration definition further and explore the CETA program more.

Doug: What about teachers, teaching artists, or schools not part of the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education or CETA programs? Can they, through ArtsEdge and other online ways, take advantage of the Center’s arts and arts-integration resources?

Amy: There are other resources, some of them online, that the Center has available to anyone who is interested in learning more about the arts or arts integration? ArtsEdge is a place to find lesson plans and other resources about the arts and arts integration.

We offered an online course this year at the Kennedy Center in Readers Theatre. And we plan to continue with some online courses or workshop offerings next year.

And we have two workshops that are on DVD that include a videotaping of portions of a workshop for teachers, and a teacher guide that can be ordered from the Kennedy Center.

In addition to the Partners program, there is the Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child initiative, which grew out of a need that we saw to help an entire community bring greater access and equity to students’ arts education.

The program brings together a broad cross section of the community to determine what arts education programs are currently in place, where the gaps are, and how to build a long range plan to fill those gaps.

And so Any Given Child is really a consulting program of the Kennedy Center in which staff and consultants go out to a site for multiple visits over several months to facilitate strategic planning meetings with a committee composed of representatives from the schools, the arts community, philanthropy, higher education, communications, and local government.

The committee gathers data about arts education resources offered in schools and by the local community and develops a plan outlining how they are going to move forward to include more arts education for K-8 students. As of now there are 12 sites across the country with three to four new sites added annually through an application process. [The site in Austin, Texas, MINDPOP, is the subject of an article in the most recent issue of NEA Arts Magazine.] It’s very exciting to see how that is expanding. And more and more communities are interested in arts education and how to make sure all of their students are getting access to quality arts education.

Doug: Thank you both for this interview and your enlightening thoughts and valuable information about resources available to teachers like Susan who are getting our preschoolers off to a promising start in school. Susan, your efforts at Wilson Arts Integration Elementary School lend credence to Secretary Duncan’s observation that “all children should have arts-rich schools.” And as we go about a nationwide effort to implement President Obama’s new preschool-for-all initiative, we’ll recall your presence at the State of the Union as a reminder of the important role the arts must play in it.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant to the assistant deputy secretary in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

This interview is the first in a series of three feature articles about arts integration projects supported by the Office of Innovation and Improvement. The other two will appear in August and September.